Noted Swiss engineer George de Mestral once found his dog covered in burrs after a hunting trip. Upon examination of the plant under a microscope, he found an intricate design of hooks that allowed it to stick to wool and fur. This plant later inspired his creation—Velcro, a widely-used, commercially successful adhesive material and a prime example of ‘biomimicry’.
Biomimicry, the act of emulating nature’s design and structure through engineering, has long been providing us with intelligent solutions to complex problems. These biologically inspired solutions lend resistance, durability and adaptability to products much like nature’s ability to thrive in a variety of external factors.
This discipline has impacted both functional business areas and research across industries. For example, a 2014 technological breakthrough took inspiration from a cat’s ability to accurately determine space and pressure levels with its whiskers. This led to the development of the most accurate pressure sensors yet—‘e-whiskers’, made from flexible carbon nanotubes. E-whiskers could have a significant impact on robots, for example, improving their ability to ‘feel’ their surroundings helping manufacturers that use robots in collaborative and assistive work.
Medical technology has also benefitted from biomimicry. Hearing aids modeled on the supreme acoustic capabilities of a particular species of fly provide valuable assistance to hearing-impaired patients. These hearing aids are able to zero in on specific sounds unlike traditional ones that often pick-up a variety of background noises. Hospitals could use anti-bacterial technology such as nano-scale surface films that repel bacteria which are structured like the anti-bacterial skin of sharks.
Biomimicry has also contributed to advancements in safety devices. The ability of species to detect minor changes in their environmental surroundings has helped scientists develop advanced sensors for safety purposes. A recent toxicity sensor has been modeled on a turkey’s ability to detect chemicals and change its skin-colour accordingly. Elsewhere, researchers have developed a bomb-detection radar inspired by the sonar tracking abilities of dolphins. This radar could also help first responders find victims during disasters.
Evolutionary progress has allowed species to thrive in an energy-efficient manner. Seaweed for example, harvests light energy by moving with waves to zones of light. Similarly, scientists have developed flexible floats that capture energy from water movements. Wind turbines often face a challenge of space due to the large size of turbine shafts. Now, the vertical movements of schools of fish is set to inspire the vertical wind turbine, with recent studies showing a ten-fold gain in efficiency.
Evolution has meant that nature has long been adapting to newer and tougher conditions while also conserving energy in the process. In addition, evolution has also served as a robust testing ground for structural development. Looking to nature for design solutions can contribute not only to industrial innovation but also to sustainable design that conserves resources. The richness and wealth of biodiversity means that much remains to be learnt from our environment. Do you think that biomimicry is a viable solution for complex engineering problems? Please leave your comments in the section below.